After 2016 struggles at nickel, Lions hope for change

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Over the next several days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: Nickelback.

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions’ pass coverage was historically awful in 2016, allowing quarterbacks to complete a ridiculous 72.7 percent of their passes, resulting in a league-worst 106.5 passer rating against.

For context, only Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, the league MVP, and New England’s Tom Brady, arguably the greatest to ever play the position, had better individual passer ratings.

In Detroit, the problem wasn’t so much the outside corners — Darius Slay allowed 35 of the 62 passes thrown his way to be completed, while Nevin Lawson was respectable on the opposite side, allowing 46 grabs on 70 targets.

The bigger issue was the gooey center of the defense, which opponents abused week in and week out. A good chunk of the blame belongs to the linebackers, a position group the Lions addressed in both free agency and the draft, namely using a first-round selection on Florida’s Jarrad Davis. But the team also struggled to get sufficient performance from the nickelback spot.

In his second season, Quandre Diggs didn’t do enough to slow opposing pass attacks from the slot corner position. He allowed a staggering 34 completions on 38 targets (89.5 percent) before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 13.

Diggs’ effort can’t be questioned, and he does some things well. His ability to navigate through traffic in run support and on screen and swing passes is apparent. But in space, he clearly struggled.

It’s unreasonable to write him off at this stage. Between the second and third season is a prime spot for a developmental jump, something the Lions got from center Travis Swanson last year. But the team isn’t content to hope Diggs makes the leap. General manager Bob Quinn brought in some serious competition for the nickel job this offseason.

In March, the team signed D.J. Hayden, a former first-round pick who failed to live up to expectations in Oakland. Although penalties were a problem, he did show some success when the Raiders shifted him inside to cover the slot last season.

If Hayden can learn to keep his hands off his coverage assignments, Diggs can’t match the newcomer’s size, length or speed.

The third horse in the race is rookie Jamal Agnew, who might not be a factor early on, but has the potential to be Detroit’s long-term solution at the spot.

A ballhawk extraordinaire in college, Agnew broke up a school-record 48 passes during his four seasons at the University of San Diego. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in explosion, reportedly running a 4.34 40-yard dash at his pro day.

Once Agnew is able to process Detroit’s playbook and coverage schemes, a far more complex set of information compared to what he was working with at San Diego, he could press for more playing time as his rookie season wears on.

The darkhorse is Adairius Barnes, who surprised many by making the roster as an undrafted rookie last season. Praised by coaches and teammates for his quick first step, he’ll need to make a few more plays this camp and preseason if he wants to stand out in the crowded competition.

Finding the right solution at nickel will go a long way toward improving the Lions’ secondary, which returns its four other starters and has some promising young depth developing in the wings. Whether it’s Diggs making strides and fending off the challengers or Hayden, Agnew or Barnes usurping playing time, the Lions can’t afford a repeat of last year’s performance in the slot.

Lions camp battles

Day 1:Left tackle

Day 2: Nickelback

Wednesday: Third-fifth receivers

Thursday: SAM linebacker

Friday: Left guard

Saturday: Fourth-fifth defensive ends

Monday, July 24: Fourth running back

Tuesday, July 25: Backup defensive tackles

Wednesday, July 26: Backup quarterback